Peter Oundjian chose to open his tenth season as Music Director of the Toronto Symphony with a work he characterized as “ebullient”, and, truth be told, under Maestro Oundjian’s baton, it bubbled like a glass of champagne.

Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian © Sian Richards
Toronto Symphony Orchestra with Peter Oundjian
© Sian Richards

Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a theme by Purcell (1946), a.k.a. The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, was designed to bring out the distinctive quality of instrumental groups and their individual members. This evening, the clarinet was perky, the bassoon was quirky, the flutes were tootie, horns and brass exotic, strings and timpani romantic, cellos danced in a sensual langour, the harp spread a shimmering glamour, snares and trumpets snarled a brisk tattoo that trombones and tuba fattened, subtle thunder bubbled in kettledrums, castanets and xylophone clattered like chains in Bedlam, and the basses grumbled like elephants crossing the Alps.

Stepping back from the sound effects, Oundjian and his Orchestra made it apparent that beyond the sound effect display is a seriously skilled and inventive set of thirteen variations Britten composed on Purcell’s fine melody, to which he fearlessly welded an &dquo;ebullient” fugue of his own creation.

It was a grand opening.

Was it coincidence that the program before intermission coupled compositions written by British composers after each of the 20th century’s world wars? In any case, Britten’s post-war “ebullience” provided a healthy perspective for the view into heartbreak that is Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E minor (1919).

Elgar’s concerto is haunted by the past, and so is the soloist, Alisa Weilerstein. Elgar was haunted by the war that had just ended when he began to compose: “I do not feel drawn to write peace music somehow.. The whole atmosphere is too full of complexities.” Ms Weilerstein herself has complex history with this work that she studied as a child by listening to the iconic recording by Jaqueline du Pré with husband Daniel Barenboim conducting. Ms Weilerstein has since recorded the Elgar with Barenboim, long after putting her memories of du Pré’s playing on the shelf. Nonetheless, she has said, “The music has a past.”

In Ms Weilerstein’s own way of playing, there is a definite impression of a singular voice playing with the orchestra in a living dialogue that has the sense of being improvised. Ms Weilerstein’s 1790 Forster cello produced tones that I have never heard before, strange tones expressing compassion for a unique loss.

Her solo opening is a hushed lament whose theme is re-tolled slowly by violas till she takes it up again braced by horns to express a sadness too deep for tears. Out of that her instrument begins to breathe first a grandeur, then a rhapsodic passion that rolls like the hills of an English countryside into which, in the scherzo second movement, she sketches surface details with pizzicato and rapid, staccato strokes of her Ouchard bow.

The slow third movement’s theme is a song about the remembrance of love lost, the perpetual cycle of love receding from life and renewing itself in the illusions of memory and dream. This movement vanishes into silence. The final Allegro marches along grimly in a quick busyness, like a mind distracting itself, until the opening theme returns as an impossibly tender and possibly redeeming recitative that fades, then raises itself up for a final flourish. Roy Thomson Hall rose in homage to soloist, orchestra and conductor.

After intermission, Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony no. 7 in D minor bathed the audience in the kind of Teutonic-style orchestral flow that Debussy came to loathe, but that is the bread and butter of symphony audiences. A vista of forest gloom atwitter with birdsong unfolds. Swelling spaces stream from the strings, distanced by horns, ornamented by avian winds tweeting among timpanic shadows where brasses herald rumours of antique wars. The melodic, emotional Adagio, followed by a jocund Scherzo and happy peasant Trio gives way to a grim Allegro that not only recalls Dvorak’s first movement, but also, by some magic, seemed thematically related to the Elgar. And that coincidence rounded off a full evening on a cheerful note.